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KURT STREETER

Getting Away Clean

Maury Wills raised stealing to an art form, before addiction and bitterness brought him down. Sober for 19 years, he's come to terms with life, and his legacy.

August 18, 2008|Kurt Streeter

Times change.

Not long ago, the old shortstop would feel the sting of betrayal every year he was not elected to the baseball Hall of Fame.

Not long ago, even up to last season, the best base stealer in Dodgers history would feel his pulse rise when he saw a journeyman in a Los Angeles uniform with a No. 30 on the back, the same number he had so gloriously worn.

It is different now. The hard, upward path Maury Wills has taken since he sobered up, 19 years ago last week, has helped the old worries, scars and resentments melt away.

"I'm feeling free," he said, walking from a 12-step meeting for alcoholics on a recent morning in Hermosa Beach. "Totally free. No ill feelings, no resentments. . . . Peace."

After years of inner housecleaning, Wills now gives off a feeling of lightness, his eyes bright and his voice full of enthusiasm. This says a lot about the man. For it would be hard to fault him, given the short shrift his legacy has received in some corners, for burning up with bitterness.

The fact that Maury Wills is not a Hall of Famer, the fact his greatness is not honored as it should be by the Dodgers, makes a mockery of baseball justice.

Peruse the record books. Wills, you will see, walked from the game with one league MVP award, three World Series rings, 586 stolen bases and a .281 batting average, all garnered after he came to the majors as a 27-year-old rookie.

Make some comparisons.

Wills stacks up well against many infielders already perched in Cooperstown. Ernie Banks and Rod Carew never made it to the World Series. Pee Wee Reese and Luis Aparicio never won an MVP. Ozzie Smith not only had a lesser batting average and fewer stolen bases than Wills, he went without an MVP award and won just a single World Series title.

Moreover, few great players put their stamp on baseball as Wills did. Dodgers fans of the heady 1960s can still recall the chant that rang through Chavez Ravine when little No. 30 led off first base, ready for another steal.

"Go, Go, Go, Go!"

"You could hear it all the way to downtown," Wills remembered. "Gives me goose bumps, thinking about it."

Before Maury Wills came along, the art of stealing bases, a big part of the game in its early days, had nearly been forgotten.

In 1962, he stole 104 bases and became the first major leaguer with more than 100 in a single season.

This was the stuff of revolution. Consider, for example, that in 1959 Willie Mays led the National League with 27 steals. In 1950, Dom DiMaggio topped the lead-footed American League with 15.

Further, during those memorable Dodgers days in the 1960s, Wills was as iconic as any other athlete in Los Angles, something vitally important to a city stratified by class and race, a city that needed sports heroes to provide some sense of togetherness.

From Pacoima to Brentwood to Watts, Wills walked on the same waters as Koufax and Drysdale, West and Baylor.

Wills is 75 now. He looks great. Looks so fit you could almost imagine him stealing bases for this year's Dodgers. But time marches. If Wills is ever to get his Cooperstown due he must make it through the Veterans Committee. They vote again in December, but chances look slim. He must garner at least 75% of the vote to make it. In 2007, Wills got about 40%.

In the past, when a new Cooperstown class would be announced, he would wait by the phone, surrounded by friends, hoping. When the call did not come he would slump his shoulders and grow deeply depressed.

"I'd go down the list of the players who got in, critiquing their credentials versus mine, their impact on the game versus mine," he said. "A spiral. It was awful."

Over the last few years, thankfully, the worry over the Hall of Fame voting has gone.

More than anything, Wills said, his newfound freedom is the result of continued growth from his fight against addiction to booze and cocaine. He starts out almost every morning at the 12-step meeting in Hermosa Beach. He has had to confront his emotions, his ego, and look hard at the wounds that came from growing up in the South and playing in minor league towns during an era of virulent racism.

He has even found a way to work around the hurt that comes from the fact the Dodgers have never retired his number. (Team policy says only Hall of Famers can have their jersey retired and framed in the Dodgers outfield, the exception being former player Jim Gilliam, a coach for the team when he died during the World Series in 1978.)

Up until last year, Wills would quietly cringe, lump in his throat, when he would see anyone else in a Dodgers uniform wearing the No. 30 he had made so famous.

Then a funny thing happened. Working as a Dodgers advisor and coach, he got to know journeyman pitcher Mark Hendrickson, who wore No. 30 at the time. "I got to liking him," Wills said, smiling at how a small thing like this calmed him. "I felt, really for the first time, good about someone wearing that number. Knowing Mark helped me out tremendously."

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